Synchronised Treading Water with Leeds United
Despite being one of the biggest club in the Championship, we have afforded less column inches than we should have done to Leeds United in recent years. Putting that right today, we are thrilled to welcome Gary Hartley to run the rule over the Whites in the Brian McDermott era and how that has impacted on his own feelings in relation to the club. Gary is the author of the wonderful article In the Shadow of the Goldfish in Issue 8 of The Blizzard, a must read publication for any thinking football fan and available for order or download here.
My Leeds United Gold membership card reads: BE UNITED. I say: don’t worry, I already am.
Sure, I’m not the first egomaniac writer who’s going to attempt to convince you that their fortunes and those of their chosen football club are seamlessly intertwined, and I definitely will not be the last. But hey ho, let’s just accept it for what it is, and get on with it.
I have currently found myself in a predicament of having too little money to do most of the stuff that might constitute the ability to enjoy life: no socialising, travelling or flippant consumption for me; plans defeated by extraneous circumstance. You can probably see where I’m going here.
As a Leeds fan, I’d like us to win promotion to the top division in the relatively near future. I’d like us to own our own training ground. I’d like to see less replica outfits of the oil-rich dotted around Leeds city centre like a taunting synthetic fabric patchwork quilt. I’d like to see at least one player who can both move quite quickly, and with the ball. But none of these things seem very likely right now; plans defeated by extraneous circumstance.
Leeds United is treading water, while the rich and/or ambitious are thriving around us. While it would be easy to predict another finish in the vicinity of eleventh to sixteenth place, the general hard-striving mediocrity of the Championship means having mid-table as the self-assessed limits of your potential can very easily see you doing a lot worse.
In a way, it would have been quite nice to face ethical quandaries about receiving the riches of a morally-dubious Middle Eastern nation. My own hands were ripe for wringing at the point of Ken Bates handing over the keys of the part-owned, part-rented property portfolio to Bahrain-based GFH Capital in late 2012, but the riches have never surfaced, so the limbs are left hanging useless in mid-air.
Unfortunately, the Post-Bates era is starting to look a bit like a high-stakes PR stunt gone drastically wrong. Talk of the owners not having full access to little details like the prior mortgaging of season ticket money is meant as mitigation on their behalf, but it ends up throwing up even more worrying questions about competence and foresight.
The thing is, even if you disregard the ethically-dubious guys with no money, Leeds are still among the very top clubs in terms of income. Expectations to be challenging are not unrealistic, but the wage bill remains mid-table. And as for outlay on the most fun thing of all, a credible place in the transfer rumours columns, very little doing. Something is possibly, maybe, very wrong – though it’s hard to tell who might know for sure (Ken Bates, via the British Virgin Islands).
Anyway, back to me. I recently, for shame, asked my mother for a loan to help with an attempt to move into accommodation slightly less crap than the location I’m currently writing this from. In the end, the moving plans fell through. Leeds’ transfer dealings we shall get on to very shortly, but, you know.
Concurrently to my own aborted movements in the property market, if you could call it that, Leeds’ esteemed owners were buying into luxury London property, looking for ‘high yields’. You can hardly begrudge them that, considering their line of work is investment – but as a parallel with the apparent lack of prospects in attracting further outside investment into the club, the realities of stagnating on the wrong side of football’s social divide seem stark. We are just a weaker portfolio prospect in a buyer’s bazaar.
I’ve been told by people who would think themselves well-wishers that my problem is a certain ‘artistic idealism’ that I really ought to get shot of. Perhaps they’re right – I sometimes relish a walk in the searing summer sun, or amidst the abundant smells of autumn; I like the way trees blowing in the wind sometimes look a bit like lungs. I tell myself these are the important things, not the stuff that everyone I know who has money and proper, well thought-through, plans are up to.
Influenced by the prevailing wind of public discourse, the modern football fan has a tendency to become overly concerned with capitalistic acquisitions of FC PLC, and forget about the simplistic joys of the game itself; the pretty patterns that even the mediocre can produce on a good day. So how are things shaping up on West Yorkshire’s finest green rectangle? Well, not that great there either. A year that marks Elland Road’s centenary hosting this motley lot is quite possibly one of the most frustrating.
Some of us, self included, may have been a little hasty to assume that Brian McDermott was going to bring a brand of stylised minimal-touch passing football to Elland Road. Thing is, at the side of Neil Warnock, Reading in their promotion season did look a bit tiki-taka.
He’s now taken to talking a lot recently in the classical cliché of ‘earning the right to play’. Reality bites – but actually, in Leeds’ case, it doesn’t very much at all. Our canines are blunt and our molars have got cavities all over the place.
There’s a lack the things that are often stereotyped to death about English football: power, pace, dominating the middle of park, and the ability to plough directly at people and finish the job when you’ve left them on their arse. The only thing left in the cache to incite primal fear is in the stands (away games only). We’ve been rumbled.
The squad is seemingly stacked with players who can do one thing well and one thing only. Ross McCormack: first touch, Jason Pearce: heading, Michael Tonge: passing, Rodolph Austin: running around a lot. The emergence of Academy talent is now not only tinged with the inevitability of a near-future sale (to Norwich, endless jokes) but also the fact they seem to point explicitly to the failings of the seniors – and in particular to the seniors brought in with the loaned pittance scraped together in the summer gone.
Budding box-to-box dynamo Alex Mowatt has almost certainly made McDermott regret shelling out a million quid (what’s now presumed to have been our entire funding for transfer fees) on the now-benched Luke Murphy. Mowatt has even got an equal-or-better brand of boy band hair. I digress. A surplus in the centre is a tad galling when the urgent cries are for the necessary width to supply the one-dimensional talents of Noel Hunt and Matt Smith – those talents namely ‘getting something on it’.
We’re we were averaging less than a goal a game before Birmingham – and the tragedy is that our latest managerial saviour is at least partly to blame. It’s all a far cry from those freewheeling days in Berkshire that Brian enjoyed, where goals were flying in from all angles based on pacey wing-play and crafty strikers. From a slick, unburdened concept based in speed and width to an old crumbling empire fronted by sloth and constriction; if the old-school fan would see Reading to Leeds as a promotion, it’s a strange sort of one.
Few were under illusions that McDermott was a new Klopp, Bielsa, or even, dare I say it, Revie. Most of us are past such high-jinx and were quite happy with a solid pair of hands and a bit of brain being applied to proceedings. Circumstance and squad favoured Reading’s successes, and what’s left after Warnock has departed a club is probably not going to be quite so complimentary to anyone.
There was talk during the end days of McDermott at his former club, that perhaps for all his common sense-talking and, more pertinently, experience a scout, he wasn’t actually that good at player recruitment. There has been further fuel to this particular fire.
The opportunity to bring in Chris Burke this summer for a few hundred grand was clearly there for the taking, as well as Peterborough’s Tommy Rowe for a bit more. Ultimately, both were spurned in favour of Murphy’s million. My bet is both targets will go on Bosmans at the end of the season, to teams that are not Leeds. There’s hope that Murphy could yet prove a gem, but my god he needs an outlet on the wing to pass to when he does get consistent games again. A change of formation may be his making – to that in a second.
The spectre of managerial favouritism is something that still hangs around like the old gypsy curse on the ground (long story, too long for here). Already lumbered with the mediocre and comparatively well remunerated likes of Tonge, Kenny and Brown as a legacy of the attempt to recreate early-noughties Sheffield United slightly to the north-west, you have to wonder why Brian’s mate Hunt is drawing a wage.
It’s not that he’s completely terrible; it’s just that we’ve already got a guy who runs around and can head it a bit in the form of Luke Varney. Multi-skilled mediocrity is the only multi-skilled we got. Hell, if he really felt the need for an ex-Reading to remind him of the good old days, Leroy Lita would have been a better fit against need, or even McAnuff. It’s a testament to the fans’ down-shifting ambitions that consensus would say that Kébé or Le Fondre were unrealistic options.
This said, if McDermott is removed from his job at some point in the near future, he’ll be paying for faults mostly way beyond one man. It’s widely assumed that he is the right man for the job, no matter how far his demeanour slips from initial enthusiasm to resigned disappointment. Then there’s the fact that the Academy is enjoying an undeniable renaissance. The youth coaches are doing wonders in providing the gifted and talented necessary to patch up the many holes in the squad. In that respect alone, it’s a weird sort of golden age.
Yes, even a brow-beaten soul such as me can attest to tinges of hope. 3-5-2, a formation suited to wingerless teams with talented full-backs, has just been adopted, and with it, a smashing of Birmingham achieved to provide some alleviation of weight around the place. It’s made me wonder whether all I need to do is arrange my stationery better.
Beating a team managed by a man who does seem to be personally associated with failure is no-one’s benchmark, but there is a sense, despite everything, that there’s something here that might be quite useful, if set up in the right way. Gone are the days of heavy-handed personality managers at Elland Road – what we need right now is an effective arranger of fragile flowers.
We’re still a ‘big club’, probably – but both we hangers-on and the guys in charge are thinking less and less like one. For the former, it’s pretty inescapable, but for the latter, I’d like to think it’s not. The signs aren’t promising, like, and the tag round our necks is starting to look more like a ball and chain, pinning us down somewhere beige while the rest have lost even the will to put much effort into taunting us anymore.
The next couple of years should tell us whether stagnation is terminal. Looming large, FFP and EPPP are two initialisms that are probably having most of the Football League on the same tenterhooks.
The owners tell us new investment is near, and in their defence, attempts to get folk through turnstiles right now, in spite of everything, have been pretty decent as compared to the Bates era – bringing in a demand-based system and far more sensible categorising of fixtures.
If one match really can change a season, then Birmingham has rendered this piece largely pointless, but if general malaise grabs hold of the playing staff again, a charitable attitude to this brave new world of fan engagement will tail off.
A tiered membership system was also introduced this season – but the small print meant you probably had to go Gold anyway to ensure a seat for most away days. It looks quite classy in the wallet, but it doesn’t work in your favour in either impressing potential employers or credit card applications. It’s also not reflected in anything approaching a gold standard at the club right now. Silver or bronze also highly unlikely to be what they’re going for; more ‘it’s the taking part that counts.’
Perhaps the fact that Leeds and I aren’t seeing much of each other isn’t such a bad thing – but I can’t help feeling it still is. Sure, I’d rather the club not be an ugly mirror of my own pathetic life, but is it wrong to still believe that those banging their heads against brick walls are still the right persons for the job, there’s a corner just waiting to be turned, and there are willing philanthropists willing to support both Leeds United and I on a leap through the looking glass? Answers on a membership card.